Irish Food Production: Growth or Real Sustainability?

Trade and Environmental Objectives Don’t Align
The authors claim that Ireland’s trade ambitions and it’s sustainable development objectives do not align. I.e, we cannot have our cake and eat it: if we choose to expand agricultural output we will get more of the downsides – e.g., a reduction in water quality, increases in climate pollution and declines in a range of biodiversity indicators. Expertise often comes with specialisation but in the case of our high dairy focus, it can equally be seen as over-dependence on a single sector. Putting all your “eggs in one basket” is a risky strategy when conditions change unfavourably. We must, the report stresses, prepare for climate shocks – extreme weather events that will test our ability to carry out “business as normal”.

Ethical Agri Policies?

This report questions the ethics of certain Irish policies. So for instance: Ireland has pushed the growth of dairy for export as milk formula, much or which goes to developing nations in West Africa for instance. Unfortunately, the authors explain, this can undermine local dairy production in the nations we export to – the fledgling farms in developing countries are unable to compete with our subsidized system. Furthermore West African advocates argue that powdered imports are nutritionally inferior and are damaging to the environment: just as we call out the ethics of Brazilian rainforests being cleared to grow beef, so too are other nations looking at the damage we are inflicting on our rivers and soil quality by our expansion in dairy.

The report also calls out the questionable ethics and pitiful response to climate change from half of the worlds 350 most influential food companies: half do not disclose targets or report on progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while over a third do not sufficiently acknowledge their responsibility to ensure the human rights of workers in their supply chain. All of this echoes a multitude of reports from the UN and others who warn about our continued degradation of soil, declining biodiversity indicators and disregard for the human rights of producers and small holders in developing nations.

Recommendations

Finally the report makes 22 recommendations, among them doing more to assist small food producers. Up to now, the authors argue, Government support for Irish growers of fruit, veg and organic production has been token. The result is that we are huge importers of vast quantities of food which we are capable of growing ourselves. For this reason, Oxfam and Trócaire, are great advocates of the power of small-scale food producers – who grow and process food for a local market. They argue for the establishment of a national sustainable food systems body that would provide a space for stakeholder’s voices to be included in decision-making. It also calls for a scaling up of programmes with clear environmental objectives and investment in rural communities. So much done and a lot more to do.


Food Vision 2030

Food Vision 2030 is in essence, a strategy document for the food sector developed by a range of stakeholders. The 10 year strategy, touted by government as an ‘ambitious and innovative roadmap‘ aims to increase agri-food exports from €14 billion to €21 billion by 2030. Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan lauded the report saying that for the first time in Ireland, “environmental measures ‘are’ central to an agri-food sector plan.” Indeed he remarked that the strategy must change to meet the upcoming climate action plan which would ensure it’s robustness. An increased focus is coming on air quality (through the Clean Air Strategy) and water quality standards (River Basin Management Plan) which are positive steps he argued.

Targets Not Binding
Critics on the other hand say it’s another detrimental blueprint for the agricultural industry and that targets are not legally binding and therefore unlikely to be realised. Noteworthy is that the Environmental Pillar, an umbrella group representing 30 organisations working in sustainability, left the discussions claiming that it’s recommendations were being disregarded. They say the report does nothing to tackle the dual climate and biodiversity crises. They point to the staggering growth in the dairy herd (up 25%) and milk output (up 41%) which has occurred over the past decade. The knock on impacts on harmful emissions, water quality and use of chemical inputs are all highlighted as measures of degenerative not, regenerative agriculture. Friends of the Earth director, Oisín Coghlan called it an “Industry led plan” which doesn’t meet our international obligations on biodiversity, climate pollution and water quality.

Representative groups from the agri-sector also have their criticisms – the ICMSA (Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association) want the need for improved environmental measures on farm to be reflected by better prices for producers. Consumers must pay more for food produced in a cleaner manner. They say that society as a whole need to have a conversation about what it is we want, and the price we are prepared to pay for it. Farming bodies have long argued that the full costs of improved farming practices have paid for by the farmer and that this can’t continue.

So two very different reports, both claiming to point the path forward to sustainable and ethical food production. However my feeling is that there will be no transformation in agricultural practice in the coming decades unless Government takes a more radical approach.

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